The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: There is a noticeable thematic continuity between “Girl in the Cave” and “Life in Outer Space.” In what ways do isolation, fear and loneliness drive these pieces?
Tasha Cotter: I’m really pleased that you picked up on the thematic unity in the poems. These two poems are part of my forthcoming chapbook, Girl in the Cave, which will be released by Tree Light Books in the spring. The poems in that collection sort of immerse themselves in the same ideas and places as these two poems, so it’s great that you detected the family resemblance between the two.
I think the qualities you noticed do drive some aspects of these poems. More than anything, though, I’m trying to focus in on how the past informs and shapes the present. The story about the hunter discovering the cave is true – but I wanted to expand on these stories a little bit. For example, I don’t know if he actually got lost, as the poem goes on to say he does. I don’t know if he felt terrified when he took that first step inside, but imagine what it must have felt like, discovering the most extensive cave system in the world in such a rural, remote place. The quiet was probably absolute. I’m sure his heart must have been racing. The enormous mystery of it all must have been awe-inspiring, at the very least.
As a poet, I’m interested in amplifying the narratives I come across and finding ways to build the oral history, the passed down narratives into present day stories and experiences. I’m interested in finding a common thread and seeing what I can create by taking two vastly different experiences and making something altogether different. Increasingly, I want to sharpen the edges of my poems with past lives and passed down histories.
RR: These poems explore space, both confined spaces and vast spaces, and the dichotomy that exists between them. Can you speak to this dichotomy?
TC: This is something I hadn’t really picked up on until you pointed it out. I grew up in a rural area of Kentucky, surrounded by vast stretches of farm land, which was wonderful in some ways – I spent most of my youth outside. In a lot of ways, it was an idyllic childhood, but as I grew up, I began to feel alienated by how the land made me feel, and I began to resent it a little. There was so much space – I wanted more. I wanted to be exposed to more.
I think it’s easier to feel alone in some ways when you have nothing but wide open fields all around you. I really craved the company of other people and the sort of cultural opportunities I’d read about in books (museums! bookstores! art galleries!) It was only natural that I began to think about moving away. Going to college was something I’d dream about – no one in my family had gone to college, so it was hard to explain to them why it was something I wanted for myself.
But, getting back to your question, now that so much time has passed, I can look back on growing up in that area of the country and have a clearer picture of the landscape. My perspective has changed a lot, and so I can see why people choose to stay. I think Gretel Ehrlich’s book, The Solace of Open Spaces, though it was written about the west, gets many things right about some areas of the south: it’s a stark, overwhelmingly beautiful area in some places, yet there’s still a darkness to the land. It can be unforgiving. It reminds you of how small you are – especially when travelling through its caves and mountains. There’s still room for danger.
RR: “Girl in the Cave” and “Life in Outer Space” are driven by strong images. For example, “A girl living in space sleeps in slips / and dresses. Falls asleep in piles of leaves…” and “the ancient silence / yielding just the slow heaving of breath.” Did these poems originate from the images or did the images evolve as the poems developed?
TC: I would say the images evolved as the poems developed. I tend to take images, narratives, stories I’ve overheard, or myths I’ve read about and shift them until I find the proper alignment for the poem I’m trying to write, that is, the story I want to tell. In some ways, it feels like assembling a puzzle, looking for the right image and/or effect to show itself. With “Life in Outer Space,” I was trying to capture a sense of the serene in the beginning and then move into the darker side as the speaker is coming of age, which felt like a natural progression when I was writing the poem. The poem turns that notion of outer space on its head, directing the reader to the earthly landscape before moving to the girl’s true fascination with the outer space we tend to think of when we think of outer space. As the girl grows up, her observations and her sense of the land change. She starts connecting the dots and figuring out what is happening all around her that she didn’t pick up on when she was younger.
RR: There is a migrant narrative in your poem “Life in Outer Space.” The piece considers the difficulties of both the original “home” and the new realm of outer space: “you want to love where you’re from, / but home is a heartache…” Did you have personal locations in mind when addressing place in this poem? Which attachment is stronger here – the connection to “home” or the drive to get away?
TC: Yes, I did have particular places in mind when I was writing these poems. I grew up on the land above Mammoth Cave National Park. You’d find the evidence of the past all around you: Native American burial grounds, creeks that literally sank into the earth, arrowheads in the dust at your feet. Living there, I felt surrounded by some unnamed heritage, and so I became interested in the stories and the folklore of the area, that is, Kentucky history, but also the southeast in general.
I once read that well over a hundred years ago, before Mammoth Cave was even listed as a National Park, there were these elaborate parties that went on inside the cave itself – one area of the cave, that is. These parties were huge attractions. People loved going because the cave kept everyone cool during the summer. People came from miles to attend these parties. There was music and dancing and the black and white images that remain from that time show all these people in stunning suits and dresses. I was entranced – it felt like reading about a Gatsby party. And all of this took place just miles from where I grew up – no one had ever told me about it! I wondered who those people were, and where they came from. It was fascinating to read about. I wondered what the music sounded like inside the cave.
In short, I knew I had to write about these narratives. And I was ready to try something different with my poetry. The material was too good.
RR: As a poet, you tell stories. “Girl in the Cave” is dominated by the allegorical “story within a story.” What is the impact of this layering of narrative? What are the challenges of conveying meaning through storytelling?
TC: I’ve been interested in writing narrative-driven poetry for many years. I was drawn to prose poetry all throughout college, and I love the work of Baudelaire, David Lehman, and Russell Edson. Sarah Manguso has also written some terrific prose-like poems that I really admire. I love the work of Lydia Davis.
But more than that, I just really like crafting these stories within poems and having the reader take that journey with me. I, personally, love free verse, narrative-driven work that has a lot of strong lyrical qualities. I like suspense, and I like plot. I probably read as much fiction as I do poetry, and so I’m drawn to the storytelling possibilities within the narrow confines of poetry. With poetry, you can magnify the most interesting, the most surreal. You can put the best parts of a story under a microscope and braid it with a narrative that’s musical and metaphorical. You can make the story a little more timeless than it might originally be.
I think the challenges of using stories and writing narrative-driven poetry lay in setting the groundwork to make sure the poem feels multidimensional. I just mean it’s too tempting to be literal minded when crafting a story within a poem. One of the challenges I always face is the work involved in tying the subject to something larger, or some greater feeling. If you’re going to write poetry, the story can’t feel like you’re simply reading fiction. It has to move on the page – it has to leave the reader with a greater sense of consciousness beyond what happens in the story within the poem.
Tasha Cotter’s work in Issue 3.1: